The first time I volunteered was in 2001 at my Dad’s Fire Department; a kid holding a smelly fire boot to collect money for the victims of 9/11.
Since then, I’ve been involved in some amazing stuff, and then in other cases, I look back and question whether I was actually being helpful.
My first experience volunteering abroad was in my early twenties. My role was to support the teacher. I quickly began to notice that teachers wouldn’t show up for days at a time. I could never get a clear answer from administrators except to call them lazy, greedy, or uncaring.
Years later I realized that the fact that I showed up was a motivating factor for teachers to stay home; someone else showed up. While horrified at the time, looking back I can see teachers were just the scapegoats for a much larger issue.
Although unlikely to find yourself in this situation in the USA or Canada, there are charities that aren’t as great as they claim to be. My advice is to do some research ahead of time and choose something you’re passionate about. Here’s a list to get you started on the right path:
1. ANIMALS RESCUE & SHELTERS
Be a Furbaby Hero!
- Help feed, clean up after and provide enrichment for animals in need
- You’ll get to meet dogs, cats, other pets, farm animals, or wildlife
- Opportunities and time commitments vary
- Aim for rescues rather than humane societies which tend to require a commitment of 6 months or more
- Some opportunities may involve the cost of accommodation, meals and/or a donation toward caring for the animals
I love animals so, of course, I’m going to start there. Working with street dogs has been my absolute favorite volunteer experience to date. It can be tough, but it’s also really rewarding to work see them thrive, whether they’ve come from the streets, situations of abuse or neglect, or have disabilities.
No matter where you are living out your RV or van life expedition, you’re bound to find a shelter along the way that survives on the help of volunteers.
Petfinder has a great feature called Volunteer Vacations that connects travelers to rescues where you can find opportunities to work with dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, and other lovely beings.
Pro Tip: Make sure to do your research beforehand. Unfortunately, not all rescues are created equal and while I do believe most have the best intentions, some are led by individuals who are underinformed and underprepared to care for the animals they take in. Sadly, others are in it for the money.
2. HABITAT FOR HUMANITY
Calling All Tradies, DIYers and the Generally Handy
- Build homes for deserving families in the community
- Approved safety gear required
- No minimum time commitment
- Meals provided by the organization
If you’re not already familiar, Habitat for Humanity builds homes for those who are unstably housed in rapid time and pretty much entirely through the efforts of volunteers.
What I think is super cool is that they’ve put a special call-out to RV-ers via their RV Care-a-Vanners program. They recognize that lots of folks on the road have the time and desire to get involved, so you can join up with different projects along your route.
You don’t need to have the experience to get involved either as they’ll find you work that suits your skillset or provide you with any necessary training. Don’t worry – it’s not a plumbing or electrical apprenticeship!
3. NATIONAL PARKS
- Help to preserve and maintain the beauty of parks across the country
- Cleaning up garbage, gardening, preserving trails and natural resources
- The time commitment is a day-to-day and as-needed basis by finding opportunities on the National Parks website
- Free, although you may pay park entry in some places which helps cover maintenance costs
What van lifer doesn’t like a good national park? You’re probably calling a number of them home along your way already. That not only makes them a convenient place to do some volunteer work; it’s also super rewarding because you’re giving back to the land that’s providing for you.
You can use the National Parks website to find current opportunities. Just keep in mind that parks won’t always have postings available, but you can look for other nearby opportunities as there’s bound to be something up ahead.
4. FOOD BANK
Feed the Community!
- Help food-insecure folks by helping to prepare and serve a warm meal
- Preparing food hampers and organize stores
- Shifts average about 3-4 hours
We all know the power of a good meal. The reality is that over the last couple of years, food insecurity has risen. While food banks have been a main source of support for people, they have also suffered. So while they work toward rebuilding communities, they’re always looking for hands to help serve warm food, accept and organize donations, and deliver meals.
Feeding America is one of the oldest dedicated food bank non-profits in America and has food banks, food pantries, and meal programs across the country. You can learn more and sign up to help via their website.
5. MAKE A WISH FOUNDATION
Make a Child Smile!
- Every child is unique! Use your special skill set to help grant a sick child their wish
- Needed skills include reading or writing in multiple languages, graphic design, photography, carpentry, interior design, landscaping and more
- Time commitments and opportunities vary
In my Child & Youth Care career I worked at a children’s hospice and palliative care center. So I can tell you from experience, it’s not the volunteer opportunity for everyone and that’s okay.
However, for those who can find the space within themselves to get involved with causes like Make A Wish, it is really special to make a child smile and see the joy it brings to their families.
Getting involved on the road may take a bit of coordinating as it’s not the standard approach. However, they have opportunities all over the country for wish makers, skill-based volunteers, translators, and events. Go to the Make A Wish website to learn more.
Pro Tip: If you do get involved in Make A Wish or similar work, make sure to take time for self-care, especially if you work closely with the children and families. Most organizations have support systems in place if you would like to speak with someone.
6. WORLDWIDE OPPORTUNITIES ON ORGANIC FARMS (WWOOF)
Get Your Hands Dirty!
- Help out with the chores around the farm and learn about organic farming practices
- In exchange, a warm bed and meals will be provided
- Hosts commonly require a commitment of 1-3 months, and 20-33 hours each week
If you’re not familiar, WWOOFing is a global idea based on the sharing of knowledge and work in sustainable cultivation, with special emphasis on ecological farming practices. While the work itself can be different from place to place, it typically involves manual labor in exchange for room and board.
As the name suggests, there are loads of opportunities to WWOOF around the world. Have a look at the official WWOOF website for opportunities in your area. If you’re stateside, you can also check out WWOOF USA to find a host along the road.
Family Fun Forever!
- Volunteer by yourself, with a group of family or friends, or with your company
- Help run the festival by taking tickets, giving info to attendees, or cleaning up
- Receive a free t-shirt for your service
- (Not sure yet if this one is free!)
I’m the sort of person who’s always up for an expo, and this Utah-based festival sounds like an absolute blast. Catering specifically to van lifers, the organizers bring together van build vendors and unique vans to foster both inspiration and connection across the community. As it sounds, it’s all about vans, vans, vans!
It tends to bring out a large crowd so volunteers are always needed. The volunteer page hasn’t yet been updated from last year so there isn’t a whole lot of information on what the job entails but the VanFest landing page states that VanFest 2022 is coming soon!
8. BURNING MAN
Celebrate creativity & community!
- Donate your time and energy to one of the world’s largest volunteer events.
- Chose from dozens of roles based on your unqiue skillset
- Volunteer as many hours as you’d like to (They just ask you to follow through on your commitment
- $575 per person – unfortunately being a volunteer doesn’t exempt you
When I first came across this idea, I was like “Whoa! That’s a thing?!” What I didn’t know, and you may not is that Burning Man is largely volunteer-created and run, so there’s a long list of ways to get involved. That also means there are a number of teams to join from greeters, documentation, the media tent, technology, cleanup, and many, many others in between.
Head to the website to complete a volunteer questionnaire that will help narrow down the right opportunity for you. From there you can join a team and become a contributor to one of the most famous festivals in the world.
9. LOCAL VOLUNTEER WORK
Meet the locals!
- Connect with the community by helping out at local festivals, events and initiatives
- Roles tend to involve providing customer service, clean up, and lending a helping hand where it’s needed
- As events will vary, so will time commitments but plan to offer at least a half or a full-day
I live in Toronto so maybe this is especially true for me, but the summer is a particularly great time for local festivals and events that you can sign up to volunteer at. It’s kind of a cool way to get to know the local culture and some community members.
I’d recommend checking out municipality websites to find upcoming events and learn more about how you can get involved with them.
You can also look into local clubs and groups you participate in at home or have an interest in.
Pro Tip: As some opportunities require a background check, it may be worthwhile getting this done by your local police department before hitting the road. That way if an opportunity comes up where it is necessary, you’ll have it on hand.
Keep in mind that some organizations require a check from their local department so a check from another city or state could be invalid.
10. CREATE YOUR OWN!
Do It Yourself!
- You’re in charge!
- Create a timeline and a time commitment that is reasonable for you and your helpers
Always wanted to do that one thing, but never had the chance? Now’s the time to go for it! Help make a difference in the communities you pass through.
I really love this idea and have come across folks doing this in my own travels. Think beach clean-up or garden maintenance. Keep a supply of garbage bags and take the opportunities as they come.
If you like planning and organizing, put a call out on the socials for others in the area to come out to help. It’s a great way to connect with others and do something good.
Pro Tip: in some cases, you may need permission or a permit, so make sure to do some research before you plan your own event. What a cool job to take on though, right?! I mean, I’m a planner so…
Virtual Volunteer Opportunities
While volunteering online was already ‘a thing’ before, I think it’s boomed in the last couple of years, and it’s an awesome option for those who are on the road because all you need is a good internet connection, a laptop, or mobile device, and some time on your hands.
11. CRISIS COUNSELLOR
Be the Difference!
- Act as a peer counsellor for someone experiencing a mental health crisis
- Text vis SMS or What’s App
- You’ll receive free, comprehensive training
- You’ll be expected to commit to 4 hours a week
- Free except for the cost of your mobile device
Mental illness affects so many of us, whether personally or through our loved ones. If the last couple of years has taught me anything, it’s that connectivity is a powerful tool, and this can be especially true for those who are struggling with their mental health.
The tech industry has been teaming up with the mental health field more and more and creating really awesome tools. There are a number of them that provide services directly from therapists and other professionals, but you can also get involved as a volunteer on some of them.
Crisis Text Line is an excellent example. It’s a platform that connects folks in crisis with trained volunteers. Their website notes:
This training is free for you, but it costs Crisis Text Line $1,008 to train each Crisis Counselor. So, we need volunteers to see training through to the end and serve out their 200-hour commitment.
Do Something…from the Comfort of Your Van!
- Supporting causes focused on social issues you’re passionate about
- Both in-person and virtual opportunities are available
- Earn volunteer credits including a signed certificate
- Opportunities to win scholarships
- Time commitments vary based on individual opportunities; some require about five minutes and others are ongoing projects.
This one is for the youth among us and the CYC in me is doing cartwheels over this resource!
DoSomething.org is a youth-led platform that connects youth with a number of really important movements. The user can select a cause, action, and time that works for them, and get involved in something that’s important to them. The topics range from gender rights and equality, homelessness and poverty, and racial justice and equity, to name just a few.
You can also opt for in-person or online opportunities.
Be a Virtual Scientist (without paying for a science degree)
- Helping scientists collect data
- Choose from many different initiatives, such as identifying planets, transcribing historical documents, or identifying unknown plant species.
- You decide how much time you commit
I’m kind of in love with this website. Not only is the UI pretty awesome, but Zooniverse is also chock-full of fun and engaging ways to get involved.
It’s called people-powered research, which means that normal individuals can participate in the research or development process. Choose from a wide range of disciplines such as biology, space, the arts, social science, and others. Depending on what you select, you may be asked to share observations, share opinions, transcribe or annotate, among other things.
I actually participated in one of the space initiatives currently listed in a university class about five years ago and found it to be a really interesting and unique way to donate my time.
14. HELP THE SMITHSONIAN
For the Book Worms & Nerds Among Us!
- Help with ongoing help to solve mysteries by exploring documents, writing encyclopedia entries, observing invasive species, or improving accuracy on
- Wikipedia pages
- Most roles do not require special knowledge or skills
- This is a 1-year commitment for a minimum of 3 sessions per week. Each session may take anywhere between 5 minutes and 3 hours.
So imagine my surprise when early on into the pandemic I found that one could easily become a virtual volunteer at the Smithsonian; the largest museum, education, and research complex in the world.
Similar to Zooniverse, they have a number of digital volunteer opportunities that allow regular people to get involved with research, education, observation, customer care, and other roles.
Mentor Entrepreneurs Across the Globe!
- Use your practical expertise to help someone develop their skills and knowledge
- This requires an ongoing time commitment and a minimum of 3 hours per month
- Check out the Code of Conduct for more details
Based on my own volunteer failings and what I’ve learned from them, I think this one is pretty ingenious.
MicroMentor is a program that was created by Mercy Corps, which is a global humanitarian initiative working to dismantle systems of oppression, alleviate poverty and injustice, and build stronger, more secure communities – layman’s terms? They help people learn and use skills so that individuals and communities can thrive.
As a MicroMentor, you can use your own expertise to help entrepreneurs around the world. While many volunteer opportunities abroad are short-sighted (in my opinion) as they exist only in the short term, the fact that this program is virtual means that mentors can work with their mentees long-term. This way, entrepreneurs learn how to do things for themselves and can then use those skills in their community.
NOW, GET OUT THERE!
There you have it; a list of 15 ways to volunteer on the road. I think that there’s something for pretty much anyone on this list, and hey, maybe even more than one is right up your alley.
Just like on the open road, there an endless possibilities of how you can volunteer your time, energy, and resources. And, if you ever find yourself hesitating, remember Yogi Berra’s words; “If you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
Lauren Schmalz lives in Toronto, Canada. Her love of travel began as a child when her parents would bring the family south of the border to explore the Eastern States. She’s traveled across North America, Europe, Asia, and Northern Africa. She is an advocate of slow travel and the road less traveled. She can be found enjoying the city with her Thai rescue dog or enjoying a good meal and glass of wine with friends and family.